Interview with an Independent Filmmaker: John Sayles talks about screenwriting, Hollywood and his time at Williams College

Last Friday, independent filmmaker John Sayles gave a series of talks at Connecticut College regarding the filmmaking and screenwriting industries, sharing knowledge he’s acquired over the years to students, professors and guests. Sayles has written over ninety screenplays and makes his living as a writer-for-hire in Hollywood. He also writes his own screenplays and makes his own films, most notably Return of the Secaucus Seven,MatewanCity of Hope and Men with Guns. After one of his discussions on the process of screenwriting and independent filmmaking, I had the chance to sit down with Sayles and discuss in more detail his creative process and his relationship with Hollywood.


College Voice: How do you get an idea for a new film? 

John Sayles: It’s not like a big light bulb goes off. Usually, it’s something that I’m interested in and I’ve been thinking about — something that I know enough about to be curious. It could be a relationship, a historical event or a social situation. Sometimes an idea leads to a dead end or a dry well, but sometimes there’s a story there. Sometimes I can say, “I can make a story out of that.” Interest is the key word here.


CV: You wrote fiction pretty extensively before entering the film business (and still write it). What do you think are the similarities and differences between fiction writing, like short stories and novels, and screenwriting? 

JS: Fiction writing you can do without raising any money. You can do it by yourself. It might not make any money, but fiction is at your fingertips all the time. I can work on a scale in a novel that I could never do with a film. A novel is like a fifty-part miniseries. The way I write, I write a kind of mosaic, many points-of-view novel, which you can’t really do in a movie. You can get away with two or three points of view, but you can’t get away with twenty. One thing that happens with writing an original screenplay is you reach a point where you feel like a sap — like you won’t make any money. Whereas, it took me two years to get my last novel published, but at least I got to write it.


CV: Do you prefer one over the other or do you value both writing and film for different reasons? 

JS: They offer different things. Moviemaking is social; you get to work with talented people who have different talents than you. Theater is maybe like that, but I haven’t done that much recently. A book you can just do. You don’t have to gather a bunch of people, or pay them or wonder what they’ll have for breakfast. I’ve done more movies than books because I’ve had more movie ideas than novel ideas, but taking all of the short stories I’ve written into account, I’ve probably told about the same number of stories as movies.


CV: On your website you discuss your relationship with Hollywood by saying, “There seems to be a kind of mutual understanding between Hollywood and me—most of what they make I wouldn’t be interested in directing, and most of what I make they’d have no idea how to sell.” Can you expand upon this idea? 

JS: I think I see maybe twenty-five movies a year, and there are maybe five I would have liked to work on. In some cases, I like the movies, but I don’t feel like I would have needed to make them myself. Hollywood is a big business; it’s a mass business, and what they have to think about is what do millions of people want to see? They’re spending between ten and fifty million dollars on advertising for a movie. Ten million people would be a lot for an independent filmmaker. That’s like the difference between running a McDonald’s and a family restaurant. If Hollywood likes my movies, that doesn’t mean that they would have the first idea on how to sell them to a mass audience.


CV: Do you have a favorite genre of film that you prefer to write? 

JS: There are a couple of genres that I’m not really interested in: vampires and hit men. The nice thing about getting to make my own films is that I can write any genre. Sometimes screenwriters can get type-casted like actors: “Oh, they’re good at comedy; they’re good at family drama; they’re good at action.” Because I’ve gotten to make my own movies, they say, “Oh, he does sports movies; he does historical films, etc.” It doesn’t really matter what the genre is — you just have to know the genre and know how to transcend it and make it different so people will want to see it.


CV: As college students hoping to make a career after college, we’re always told that we need to learn to make ourselves indispensable in whatever industry we hope to enter. How would you say you’ve made yourself indispensable to the film industry? 

JS: I’m not indispensable. How I’ve made myself useful to the industry is being able to write fast, write in a lot of different genres and voices and digest a lot of information fairly quickly. As a screenwriter, you have to do a lot of auditioning for a job and do a lot of the work before getting paid. Right now, I’m up for a job writing a film about civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer, another about Clarence Darrow and another about the political incident at the 2008 national Republican convention. A lot of my job is convincing the production team where I think the story is; I have to get them excited about the story, so they want to pay me to write it. I think it’s helped that I’ve had acting experience because that helps me talk up the story and pitch the idea. Part of the job is understanding all the parts of the job and getting better at the ones you’re not good at. As a director, I’m not indispensable at all; the independent film industry is small.

I think one way to make yourself indispensable is to find a specialty within your industry. Writing and directing are not really specialties in the film industry, but sound editing is. I have a friend who just won an Academy Award for sound editing for the film Hugo. Now that’s a skilled job that so few people are really good at. The only problem with having a specialty is that people don’t want you to move out of that field.


CV: You graduated from Williams College. Can you talk about what life at a small, private school was like for you? 

JS: One of the reasons I went to Williams was the fact that they didn’t have any frats. I also appreciated that they didn’t have a “big time” attitude; they were more low key than Harvard. Williams had a beautiful theater. I got to direct a play after only taking one theater class, which was nice. Williams was a place where if you wanted to do the work, you could do it. I was pretty lazy except for things I was interested in. I did a lot of extracurriculars; I read a lot of books and watched a lot of films that weren’t available to me before going to college. I used it as a learning experience and met a lot of people I never would have met. At that time in the U.S. there wasn’t all of this pressure to get a high-paying job right after college. You could go to graduate school or you could experiment in different fields.


CV: What advice do you have for any students interested in filmmaking or writing? 

JS: With writing, you have to write. You have to develop your own internal taste about your own work and learn to step aside and see if what you’ve written is good work or not. With newspapers, you come to internalize the style of the paper and realize that there’s a kind of formula to it. You still have to do the legwork, but you come to know the style and length of an article.

You also have to try different things, especially when it comes to writing. The famous playwright August Wilson used to write poetry before he decided to write a play one day.

As for filmmaking, I think right now it’s more possible to make a movie than ever. You can get film equipment pretty cheaply, and there are cheap editing systems that you can buy. A lot of students today are into acting and theater. If you make a movie, it doesn’t have to be a feature-length film; it could be a short film or even a scene.

I don’t think that you have to go to film school necessarily to make films. Anyone can try out that form of communication. For example, a roofer can make a video on how to tile roofs. We have a joke: for your second film you can either make new friends or hire new actors. But for your first film, you can just get your friends together, find people who are into it, buy a couple pizzas and make a movie.